Learning the lessons from Beyond the Fragments

DSCN0398Yesterday (8 June) was a rare sunny Saturday in Manchester yet 45 people decided to spend the day at The University of Manchester to discuss feminism, socialism and the state at the movement at an all day event titledĀ Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the making of Socialism. It was not just the usual crowd for our events, though I certainly hope many do become so, some had been involved in socialist feminist politics for decades and others just a few years. One contributor recalled going to one of the first Beyond the Fragments meetings in 1979 at the age of 17 and how the book and the events around it made him a feminist to this day. The event was organised as a new edition of the book written by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright has been published with three new chapters looking at what has changed, what has been lost and what has been won in the 34 years since the first edition was published. We were privileged to have one of the authors, Lynne Segal, come and participate and speak.

The first session set the context of the day, what struggles are ongoing, where is the left going wrong and the role of feminism in radical change. The panel was Rachel Twaites (ACI), Jess Winterson (Plan C) and Katheryn Burdon-Manley (IS Network). Speakers touched on the changes within capitalism, the state of the left, bureaucratic inertia and patriarchy within the trade unions and campaigning in communities on issues such as abortion rights and the bedroom tax. The discussion which followed was lively and an interesting exchange took place on the legacy and relevance of the Wages for Housework campaign and whether it is an effective strategy to confront capital or a road to being subsumed by it. Rachel and Jess correctly, in my opinion, defended the approach elaborated by Silvia Federici in the 1975 article Wages Against Housework which stated that when women “struggle for wages we struggle unambiguously and directly against our social role.”

DSCN0400After a short break the second session was opened by Lynne Segal who spoke for 30 minutes on where and why the three authors were drawn to write the original pamphlet and the impact it had on the movement. The real strength of the talk was the explanation of neo-liberalism and Lynne’s recalling of what has been lost over the last three decades. Unlike the TV shows and popular histories the 1970s were, for Lynne, a decade of hope, cooperation and whilst often struggles were hard there seemed to be little doubt that capitalism could be overthrown. The defeats we have suffered as the neoliberal juggernaut flattened all resistance has left our movement in a worse situation than the 1970s where common assumptions and working class and feminist organisations have been lost. Lynne offered a way out of these problems by citing the need to bring together the movements in a Syriza style formation that would fight back against neo-liberalism and seek to turn the clock back and restore the welfare state by capturing the state. Such a broad movement would encompass all those on the left whether within the Labour and Green parties or the revolutionary groups beyond. Lynne was joined Alice Robson (Feminist Fightback) who spoke about her experiences of getting involved with the left and how finding Beyond the Fragments was a crucial moment in her political development. Alice also spoke of the work she had been involved in around defending the occupation of the women’s library in London in March, the ongoing work to establish a local community space and the cleaners’ struggle in London. She stressed the need for an intersectional approach to developing a socialist feminism that could make necessary links to build an effective movement.

DSCN0413The final session was opened by Gwen Lonergan (Plan C and Feminist Fightback) who spoke how racism and sexism can still privilege those who are anti-racists and anti-sexist and that it is important to recognise that the movement must be accessible and that feminism means different things to different people. Cat Rylance (ACI) was the second speaker in the session and discussed the ongoing disintegration of the left, the failure of many groups to understand such basic ideas as having women’s caucuses and the need for a vision beyond capitalism. Cat also noted that the reason why many of these discussions around feminism are taking place is because of the crisis across the left after the “Comrade Delta” rape allegations that tore apart the Socialist Workers Party. A wide ranging discussion followed covering how to rebuild the left, how capitalism has taken feminism and sought to transform it into a individualist quest and the question of Islamic feminism.

The day was a success and the debates we started will continue, the links we have made with speakers from Plan C, the IS Network and individuals of no affiliation will be built on and the open and inclusive approach we took that helped us have useful discussions will be repeated and strengthened.

The event was supported by Socialist Resistance, Red Pepper, Anticapitalist Initiative, Manchester Feminist Theory Network, and the Feminist Research and Reading Group.

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7 Comments

  1. June 9, 2013 at 7:13 pm · Reply

    I guess we are just going to agree that we have different definitions of the word “success”.

    http://dwighttowers.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/de-fragmentation-grenades-or-the-definition-of-insanity/

    • Chris Strafford
      June 9, 2013 at 7:41 pm · Reply

      Sorry you didn’t enjoy the sessions you attended, your post has some interesting ideas some of which we had considered doing in the working group but decided not to take on. Maybe we can do next time. We did, however, give time for people to discuss with each other after the speakers had finished, accepted questions and contributions in writing and ensured the meeting was fully accessible by having childcare arrangements on hand if needed. I do think that your proposals look like a structure to a corporate training day and once you get through the ice breakers and constantly breaking up into small groups the political focus of the event can get lost. I think for an all day event on a warm Saturday we had a very low attrition rate, we only lost a handful of participants over the 6 hours.

  2. June 9, 2013 at 10:07 pm · Reply

    ” look like a structure to a corporate training day”

    Er, not like any corporate training day I have ever been on. The ones I’ve been on have been death by powerpoint followed by very tokenistic and facipulated “workshops.”
    Anyway, that’s just name-calling!! Maybe there are some GOOD things we could learn, gasp, from the corporations, (and from the military?)
    The ideas I took, actually, mostly from “un-conferences”, open-space technology, which is not “corporate”. The law of two feet, for example, is not corporate at all.

    “constantly breaking up into small groups the political focus of the event can get lost”
    If by “political focus” you mean “attention always to the front of the room where the hand-picked representatives of the organisations sponsoring the event should be”, then yes, it would be lost. To me, clearly, that’s no great loss!

    I learnt very little from the day. I am SURE I would have learnt LOTS if there had been genuine opportunities to interact in depth with the many interesting attendees in the room. People who had travelled from far and wide, and were passionate about the issues, had their own experiences and perspectives. These were not at all honoured or captured for sharing with people beyond the room.

    I think it’s interesting that the write up goes into a lot of detail about what the speakers said, but very very little about the question and answer sessions. Could it be that “voices from below” aren’t that important?

    Your attrition rate may or may not have been low – I know my wife left in despair quite early on, and she is one of the smartest and most committed people I’ve ever met (I would say smartest, but I’ve met Noam Chomsky). I left, and I suspect others did too. If you choose to hear that, it tells you something. If you choose not, that’s fine, that’s your choice. I think it’s telling that you didn’t collect ANY feedback anonymously (of course your friends are going to tell you it was wonderful. They don’t want to hurt your feelings!!)
    If you want to learn, anonymous feedback forms, especially to the people who don’t stick around to the end.

    The key point that I took from my reading of BTF (admittedly years ago) is that top-down meetings bore people, and are disempowering. I think it’s remarkable that such a top down event was organised – and is being defended, when it was, ostensibly, all about BTF.

    Perhaps you will do it different next time, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend any of my allies or comrades to attend without compelling proof that you WERE both willing and able to be a) innovative and b) less dismissive and defensive when you get detailed constructive suggestions.

    • Chris Strafford
      June 9, 2013 at 10:49 pm · Reply

      Dwight, I was not being dismissive, I was disagreeing with you. I’m not sure we can learn much from the military on how to organise political meetings. Like I said, we will keep in mind the points you raised the next time we organise an event. We are a very self-critical group and we will keep looking at ways to improve having inclusive and useful political discussions. I do not think everything you propose is always useful for political meetings, I have sat in such meetings where political discussion gets lost among different workshops, breaking up into ever smaller groups and often very naff ice breaking sessions. Maybe if you stayed a while longer you would have heard the experiences of people who had “travelled from far and wide” from floor as well as our speakers. I certainly learned things and I’m sure others did too, I am sorry you didn’t.

      There is often a fetishisation of particular ways to organise meetings, whether it’s little working groups or having a top table for example. For us, we want to organise meetings in a way that best serves the discussions we need to have. So we’ll be constantly evolving how best to do that. I’m sure we could take on board some of things you raised at times but yesterday’s event did see good discussions sparked off by interesting and varied speeches. No event can keep everyone happy or engaged but we’ll try our hardest to do so without getting in the way of politics.

  3. Nicola Leonard
    June 11, 2013 at 12:30 pm · Reply

    I would like to leave a comment for Dwight, I must apologise for using the ter “your wife” as I feel this title undermines everything I stand for, however I do not know her name she would like to be called, I wanted to say I felt she made an extremely valuable comment regarding “who’s voices will , should and could be used”. I feel this was on the lines of women both internationally too. I wish we could have discussed this further, as this question is still going over and over in my mind. Thanks you and I hope you will pass this on. Thanks.

  4. Jenny
    August 1, 2013 at 10:48 am · Reply

    You can read Alice Robson’s speech here http://www.redpepper.org.uk/after-beyond-the-fragments/

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